The warm glow of Christmas break lasted for 6 minutes and 40 seconds once Stephen returned to the office, just enough time for him to take off his coat and walk to the Caf for a fresh cup of coffee. As he returned to his desk, he saw a cluster of people surrounding it – or in technical terms, a trouble of engineers.
“I assume you’ve seen this,” Frank called, waving two pages of paper at Stephen as he approached. “I was so angry that I printed it!”
“This is a big deal,” Mark agreed. “He hasn’t printed an email since the Abortive Dress Code of 2010.”
“2009,” Frank countered. “The copy is still in my HR file.”
Stephen set his coffee cup down and took the papers. “I have no idea what you two are babbling about. I haven’t checked my email yet.”
“But this was sent a couple of days ago. How could you miss it?” Frank asked.
“I didn’t check email all week.” Stephen shrugged at their dumbfounded expressions. “I promised Jen. Plus, to be honest, I needed a break from the crazy.”
“Well, the crazy has found you,” Kelvin observed. “Read.”
To: All CouldBU employees, contractors, and consultants
From: Rod Smith
Subject: Happy Holidays & Important Plans for the New Year
The holidays are a time of togetherness: a time to be with family and friends, to gather around the tree and give gifts of love. My kids love Christmas at our lodge in Vail, but I love New Year’s even more, because it presents the opportunity to examine what we have learned from the last year and how we can do better in the year to come.
What did we learn this year? Well, I learned that good visual design is in the eye of the beholder, that software development takes a lot longer than you might think, and that conference calls with mimes just don’t work. As a company, I think that we learned that a little discipline goes a long way and that it takes sacrifice and hard work to make it to the top, even in the entertainment industry.
Some members of our company have already made their sacrifices and will not be part of Release 1 of CouldBU.com. I would like to personally thank them for their hard work and ask for their patience as we try to accommodate the unfortunate realities of building a new technology. We look forward to your inclusion in Release 2.
Now it’s time for the rest of us to make our sacrifices. Beginning Monday, I am instituting a six-day work week in all CouldBU offices. I’m sure that everyone will agree that this is a necessary step towards the goal of launching our company in March. To ensure compliance, we will be installing cameras in all of our offices, starting with Los Angeles, so that I and the rest of the executive team can monitor progress from anywhere in the world.
Have a safe and happy New Year, and I look forward to seeing all of you in the office on Monday. If you have any questions about the new work schedule, please ask your local HR representative when he or she takes attendance next Saturday.
Stephen looked around the circle of expectant faces. “Let’s see what Jack has to say about this.”
“It comes down to this,” Jack said, pacing the conference room, “our contract only allows overtime at our discretion. As long as we meet our commitments, the client can’t dictate our hours. We can meet out commitments, can’t we?” he looked around the room amidst an uncomfortable silence.
"Was that with or without the Saturday hours?" Frank finally asked.
"You see," Mark elaborated, "we’ll probably have to work some weekends anyway just to meet the schedule. We just don’t like being told we have to work or that we have to come into the office to do it. We have personal lives, too, you know."
Jack looked at Mark in mock surprise. "You do? Since when?"
Mark rubbed his throat uncomfortably and made a face at Jack. "Ha, ha. Seriously, I already have some weekend plans for when I’m back in LA, and I don’t think they should be ruined if I can deliver my code on time. Tell Rod to go pick on one of his other companies for a while."
“Start showing some progress and he probably will. From what I’ve heard, he doesn’t have the greatest attention span. Now, as for the cameras: there’s not much we can do there. Their building, their rules. As long as they’re watching everyone and not singling us out for special attention, you’re stuck with Big Brother in the office. Just go outside if you need to pick your nose. I talked this over with Anthony…”
“Hey, where is he, anyway?” Stephen asked. “I thought he was going to join us.”
“He’s on an upswing. Spent New Year’s Eve and most of New Year’s Day in the rub planning the next disruptive shift in technology. Unfortunately, his laptop only made it to Hour 12 before it shorted out, so he’s dictating all of his ideas to a roomful of engineers and analysts while it’s still fresh in his mind. He said he’s swing by if they needed a break. Anyway, Anthony and I have scheduled a call with Rod to discuss this. He and his family are in Vail for another week…”
“Good to see the executive team is making its sacrifices, too,” Frank grumbled.
“… but he agreed to a quick call on Wednesday night between skiing and dinner. We’ll let him know that ADD is committed to this project, but that he needs to let us manage our own people. Don’t worry, I won’t hang you out to dry.”
A buzz of voices rose to a crescendo outside the conference room as Anthony opened the door and stuck his head through the opening. Behind him, the team saw a crowd of admins and analysts carrying tablets, computers, and large sheets of paper densely covered with drawings and Anthony’s untidy scrawls. Anthony spoke quickly, “We needed a bathroom break and the markers were running dry, so I came to check in on you. Everything under control?”
Stephen nodded. “Yes, Jack’s helping us sort things out. Thanks for making time to talk to Rod for us. I’m sure he’ll be more willing to listen to you than to me.”
“Well, I don’t know about that, but I’ll try. Hey, is anyone else hot?” Anthony’s hand appeared from behind the door, dabbing at his flushed brow with an ink-stained paper towel. One of his admins snatched it away and replaced it with a clean one, but not before he had spread a streak of blue ink across his forehead. “Can I help with anything else? Maybe a code review?”
"No!" replied Stephen, Frank, Mark, and Kelvin simultaneously.
"I mean, not right now, thanks," Stephen continued quickly, "We’re right in the middle of coding, so it wouldn’t make much sense to give it to you now." He shot a desperate glance at Jack, who held up three fingers. "We won’t have anything to show until Thursday or Friday."
"Oh, that’s too bad," said Anthony. "I’ll be in London by then and won’t have time to give it the proper attention. Let me know if it’s ready earlier, though." He glanced at his watch. "They’d better be done peeing by now. I’ll catch up with you later." He ducked back out of the conference room and walked off at a swift pace, his cloud of helpers scuttling along behind him.
Everyone in the room let out a long sigh of relief except for Stu, who looked confused.
"Why don’t we want him to review the code?" he asked, "Isn’t he some sort of uber-programmer?"
After glancing at the others to see who wanted to explain, Kelvin spoke, "He knows more about programming than all of us combined, but he doesn’t know when to stop. The last time he did a code review for one of our product teams, he decided that their code wasn’t efficient enough. He took the entire code base home over the weekend and rewrote it in Fortran."
"And did it run faster?" Stu asked.
"Of course it did, but that’s hardly the point," replied Kelvin coolly, "No one else knows Fortran anymore, so he was the only one who could maintain it. That, and it only seemed to run reliably on Anthony’s Linux box at home. He never was one for details."
"So I gather," said Stu, as they saw Anthony and his assistants pass the conference room again going the opposite direction. "So, having him do a code review on our project would be… challenging."
"If we were lucky."
The team rose to leave, but Jack waved for Stephen to stay seated. As he closed the door, he shook his head. “An executive mime, really? I thought I’d heard it all.”
“You have no idea. Did I mention the woman in the body paint?”
“That I would have paid to see. Of course, so would my ex-wives, if the pictures would have improved their settlements.” He sat on the couch across from Stephen. “So, how are you holding up?”
"Believe it or not, I kind of miss closing projects. I’m starting to see the appeal in cleaning up someone else’s mess."
Jack chuckled. "Sure, because then it’s not yours."
Stephen grinned back wryly. "Exactly."
"You know, this was one of the reasons I gave you this project: so that you could see what it’s like from the other side. It’s easy to call the other guy an idiot when you don’t know what he had to deal with. Not that you needed to be knocked down a peg or anything, but then again, a little humility is good for the soul.”
“Gee, thanks, Papa Jack. What was the other reason you handed me this ticking time bomb?”
“Because I knew you were the only one who could handle it.”
“Oh,” Stephen felt a flush rising in his cheeks. “Well… thanks.”
"Don’t get sappy on me, kid,” Jack said briskly, “we’ve got work to do. When you’re neck-deep in crap it doesn’t really matter how you got there, only how you plan to get out. Let’s see if we can get you out before the crap rises any higher."
Stephen had a terrible thought. "What if we can’t?"
"But what if we can’t? What if Rod won’t agree to any concessions for our team? What if this becomes a death march and at the end of it we still don’t finish on time? What if people quit because they can’t take the pressure? What if Frank goes postal and modifies his pants computer to use as a targeting mechanism for a high-powered assault rifle?"
"I find most of those scenarios highly unlikely," Jack replied, "except that last one. That boy’s one modification away from becoming the Terminator." He smiled to show that he was kidding. Mostly.
"OK, but hypothetically, what if the worst comes to pass?" Stephen shuddered. "Short of, you know, bloodshed. Would we consider pulling out of the project?"
Jack considered it briefly. "Nope."
"Never? What if there were mudslides? I hear they have those in California all the time."
"We’d put on hip waders and go to work."
"We’d work from here."
"Slap on our tinfoil hats and keep coding. It wouldn’t surprise me if Frank already had one in his bag, just in case."
"So we’re seeing it through to the bitter end."
"That’s what we do. We’ve never quit on a project yet and we’re not going to now, no matter how weird they get. I think that if you asked the rest of the team, they’d agree with me." Jack gazed searchingly at Stephen for a long moment before slowly adding, "Of course, if you want out, we can always pull in some relief. I think Sully’s coming free soon…."
Stephen sat up quickly. "No, I can handle it."
"You’re sure?" Jack waited for Stephen to nod. "All right, then let me give you some advice, one old project manager to another: the only way you’re going to survive this is if you focus on the things that are under your control and let go of the rest. My Polish grandmother used to tell me a story when I started worrying too much…"
"You’re not Polish, Jack," Stephen interrupted.
"Did I say I was? I said that my grandmother was Polish." Jack smacked Stephen on the leg. "Pay attention. Anyway, she told me this story: A man was driving down a lonely country road when he got a flat tire. He got out to fix it, but discovered that he didn’t have a jack to raise the car off of the ground. Looking around, he saw a farmhouse in the distance, across a large muddy field. As he walked across the field, it began to rain. He continued to trudge across the field, bemoaning his bad luck. It was getting dark, he was soaked to the bone, and he was ruining his best shoes walking across this stinking field. Looking at the house, he wondered whether anyone was even home, and it they were, whether they would be willing to help a stranger who showed up at their door. What if they didn’t have a jack? What if they refused to help? What if they wouldn’t even come to the door when he knocked? He decided that this farmhouse had a decidedly unfriendly look to it.
"By the time the man reached the door to the house, he was an angry, frightened mess. He pounded on the door and a man answered. Shaking his soggy fist in the startled farmer’s face, the man shouted, ‘I don’t want to borrow your lousy jack!’ Then he turned and stomped off into the night."
Jack stopped and looked at Stephen expectantly, waiting for enlightenment to dawn. After a moment, Stephen asked, "So, did he call AAA then, or what?"
Jack frowned. "No, that’s the end of the story."
Stephen grunted, "If all Polish folk tales are this pointless, I can see why you deny that part of your heritage."
Jack let out a loud, put-upon sigh. "The point of the story, my truculent young friend, is that the man was so worried about what might happen, so focused on the misery of his situation, that he abandoned his one chance to get out of it. He decided that it wasn’t going to work before he even tried."
"Ohhhhh! I get it now," Stephen rolled his head back and looked at the ceiling. "You think that’s what I’m doing."
"Well, tell your Polish grandmother that I wish she had passed on more wisdom to her grandchildren along with all those lovely fables." Stephen lay down on the couch and put a pillow over his head.
"You’re welcome." Jack rose to go, slowing briefly at the door when a muffled voice called:
Stephen was still thinking about Jack’s Polish grandmother’s advice when he got on the phone Wednesday afternoon, and he was prepared not to worry about anything that was out of his control, a resolution that was immediately tested.
"Code reviews," growled Frank as soon as Stephen was on speakerphone.
"Sgt. Dick has instituted daily code reviews. He read somewhere that the longer a bug lives in the code, the more time it takes to fix, so now he wants to review our code daily before we leave the office."
Stephen felt the by-now familiar gnawing in his stomach, but he pushed it away, hard. "I thought you said he couldn’t read code. What’s he going to do, guess?"
"No, he wants us to do the work with peer reviews. We review Thomas’ team’s code and they review ours."
The gnawing eased. "Well, that’s easy enough, then. A little professional courtesy goes a long way."
"We’re way ahead of you, chief," said Frank. "I talked to Thomas and we agreed, sight unseen, that our code is beyond reproach. We don’t expect to find any bugs today, tomorrow, or the day after that."
"Won’t Richard be suspicious if no one ever has any bugs in their code?"
"He’d have to be capable of higher brain functions to achieve suspicion, wouldn’t he?" Frank asked nastily.
"All right, all right. We thought of that, too. We’ll throw him a bone once in a while, just to keep him quiet. Not too many, though. Did I mention the punishment if you have a bug in your code?"
"No…" Stephen wasn’t sure he wanted to hear this.
"Ten pushups for a first offense, 20 for each additional bug in a given day. If it’s a showstopper, you get 25 right off the bat."
"Oh boy." Even given their recent calisthenics, Stephen wasn’t sure if any of his engineers could do 25 pushups. Well, maybe Stu. Chopping his own wood all winter had to build up some arm strength.
"So you see why we have our non-aggression pact in place."
"Yeah. Well, try to keep it in place, all right?"
"Of course. When have you known me to cause trouble?"
Thursday’s call started somewhat better; everyone was anxious to know how Jack and Anthony had fared with Rod, so they let Stephen speak first. Before starting, he checked, "Who’s in the room now?"
"Just us," replied Mark. "Thomas and the rest of the CBU guys went out for lunch. I think they’re meeting a prospective client for their… other project."
"Oh yeah, how’s that going? They can’t be happy about losing half of their weekend work time, too."
"Craig was livid," said Kelvin. "He said that this could push the IPO back another six months."
"Do they have a name for this thing yet?" Stephen asked.
"Not yet. I think that they’re kind of superstitious about it," Kelvin answered, "as though not having a name won’t give CouldBU anything to put in the court papers when they file the inevitable non-compete lawsuit."
Stephen gave a short, humorless laugh. "Let’s hope we’re out of there before that blows up, anyway."
Frank couldn’t wait any longer. "What about us? Are we stuck in this airless hellhole on Saturdays now, too?"
"I take it the cameras aren’t up yet. The short answer is no, we don’t have to come to the office to work on Saturdays."
"I notice your precise phrasing," observed Kelvin dryly. "What’s the long answer?"
"Well, since we already agreed that we’d probably have to do some weekend work anyway, and since the CouldBU employees still have to come in every weekend, Jack couldn’t exactly argue that we shouldn’t work on the weekends at all. We can work from home if we want, but we don’t have to come into the office."
"And by ‘we,’ you mean…"
"All of you," Stephen admitted sheepishly. To be honest, he wasn’t sure how much benefit he provided to the project during the week anymore. He had no idea how he would help on a weekend, short of ordering pizza to be delivered to their apartments.
Frank sighed. "Well, it’s something, at least, and it could be worse."
"Frank! Get that pencil out of your ear! You’ll puncture your eardrum!" Mark shouted.
Immediately, Stephen knew what was going on. "The Danger Pencil?"
"Yes. That’s the second time today he’s started playing with it," said Mark wearily. During their project at the Department of Defense, Frank had become enamored with the pencils that were issued to all employees. On one side of the pencil was printed, "PROPERTY OF UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT." On the other side was a warning: "WARNING: SHARPENED PENCIL MAY CAUSE PERMANENT EYE DAMAGE." Frank had stolen one of these pencils at some point during the project, and he kept it needle-sharp. He had actually used it to take notes for a while, until it wore down to read only "WARNING: SHARPENED PENCIL." Now he kept it as a souvenir, a pointy reminder of how absurd a client environment could become. Unfortunately, he often forgot how sharp it was when he started playing with it, adding an unintentional layer of irony to the Danger Pencil’s legacy.
"This doesn’t really help me much, you realize." It took Stephen a moment to recognize the husky, morose voice on the phone as Stu’s. "I can’t work at home, so I’ll need to come in here anyway."
"I’m sorry, Stu." Stephen was immediately remorseful. "I forgot to mention your unique work situation to Jack. We can probably go to their HR department for a special dispensation for you, if you want."
Stu sighed. "No, I don’t want to make a fuss and I certainly don’t want to let the team down. I was just hoping to have some time for other things on the weekends." He sighed again. "I’ll make it work."
"OK," Stephen agreed reluctantly. "Let me know if you want me to take it up with HR. It would give me something constructive to do."
They were about to hang up when Frank suddenly shouted. "No! This will not stand! Absolutely not! I cannot let this pass!"
"Um… what’s going on?" Stephen asked, imagining the worst.
"This code that Greg wrote! I have ignored some things, but I this is unforgivable!"
"I thought that you weren’t actually going to review anything," Stephen said.
"I never said that. I said that we agreed not to find any bugs. This one, though, I cannot ignore. He forgot to check for null pointers!"
"That’s easy to fix," Kelvin began.
"This is Programming 101. He should be locked up and have his network permissions revoked!" Frank’s ravings faded as he walked out of the room. Moments later, Stephen heard what sounded like a police whistle blowing.
Mark answered hurriedly, "That’s the Bug Whistle. We’re supposed to blow it when we find a bug so Richard can oversee the punishment. I’d better go deal with this. We’ll check in with you tomorrow morning." He abruptly disconnected the call.
Carefully, Stephen returned his telephone handset to its cradle before rubbing his stomach. I wonder what an ulcer feels like, he thought.
By Friday morning, Stephen’s inbox was overflowing with bug reports. Looks like I’m back in the loop, he thought as he scanned through them. Clearly, the war was on. By his count, Frank had done at least 100 pushups on Thursday after breaking the code review truce. Greg had done 25, Craig 30, and Thomas 50. Kelvin and Stu remained unscathed, though he doubted that could last long. Mark had done 60, but the most surprising thing was that two of his bugs had been reported by Frank. Probably getting back at him for yelling about the Danger Pencil.
He tried several times to call someone at the LA office before their usual lunchtime call, but no one answered and the bug reports began flowing again just after 12:00 his time. His best guess was that the war continued as soon as calisthenics were over. His email and instant message queries were also ignored. Clearly, no one had time for anything outside of CouldBU’s halls right now.
Finally, 3:30 came and Stephen’s phone rang. He dove for it, catching it halfway through the first ring. "What the heck’s going on over there?" he cried.
"Hello to you, too." Frank sounded winded. "We’ve declared a cessation of hostilities until after lunch."
"I’m glad to hear it. You’ve probably worked up quite an appetite doing all of those pushups."
"We had to switch to sit-ups since our arms don’t really work that well anymore. By the way, do you mind if I put you on speaker? The phone’s getting a little heavy."
"Sure, go ahead." Stephen heard his voice booming back through the speaker before he completed the sentence. "So it’s getting a little crazy there, huh?"
"We’ll stop when they do," Frank said fiercely. "Craig said that I failed to properly close a nested loop! I always close my loops!"
A faint voice called, "You do not!" Apparently, the CouldBU engineers had elected to stay in for lunch today. From nearby, Thomas said, "You guys are even starting to make bugs up! I mean, come on: ‘failing to parse a Jabberwocky statement?’ That’s not even real!"
"As far as Richard knows, it is," Mark replied stubbornly. "Like you should talk. I had to do 20 sit-ups for…" Stephen heard Mark rummaging through a pile of papers, "fornicating a command line? Really, he should have known that one was a fake."
Stephen tried to step in. "Come on, you guys, I thought we were all on the same team. Can’t we go back to working together to keep management at bay? When did the insanity slip through the door?"
"Right after you called Greg a programming baby," replied Craig.
"Oh really, Frank," Stephen admonished.
"That’s not what I said! I said that he needed to go back to developer nursery school if he was going to write code like that."
"Do you really think that’s any better?" Greg asked, astonished. A hubbub arose in the room as negotiations broke down.
"We need to find a way to settle this!" Stephen shouted into the phone, startling the people around him.
"Well, you’re not here, are you?" asked Craig nastily.
Ouch. Stephen took a deep, steadying breath. "Can you at least stop filing bugs against each other for the rest of the day?" he asked at last. "I can’t imagine that any of you want to do any more sit-ups or pushups today."
Grudgingly, they assented, agreeing to cease the code reviews until Monday. Stephen hung up and put his head down on his desk. After several minutes of deep breathing, he came to a decision and raised his head, reaching for the phone again. "Sometimes you try not to worry about the things you can’t control, Jack," he muttered through clenched teeth as he dialed, "and sometimes you have to take control of the things you’ve been worrying about."
He waited through several rings before his wife answered. "Hi babe. Listen, you’re going to have to reschedule dinner with the Stigbergs next week. I have to go to LA on Monday."